Cities Might Follow Suburb's Lead On Same-Sex Benefits

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio (AP) - As the Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Heights prepares to meet possible legal and political challenges to its decision to give health benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees, other Ohio cities are considering similar legislation.

Critics say the City Council's groundbreaking vote last week -- making the Cleveland suburb the first in Ohio to provide such benefits -- excludes unmarried heterosexual couples from the same coverage.

Cleveland and Columbus are likely to be the next Ohio cities to consider health benefits for same-sex couples.

In Cleveland, council member Nelson Cintron said he will propose similar health coverage for city employees as early as June.

In Columbus, council members are now considering health benefits for all who live with city employees. In 1998, council voted to give health benefits to same-sex partners. When residents got enough signatures for a vote, council repealed the decision.

Under the Cleveland Heights law, an unmarried heterosexual couple could claim discrimination, NAACP President George Forbes said.

"That will have to be raised by someone who works for Cleveland Heights who wants the benefits ... and be decided by the court," said Forbes, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Cleveland chapter.

Stephen Zashin, a lawyer and certified labor employment specialist, says he doubts a heterosexual person could win that claim. Zashin said unmarried heterosexuals can marry to acquire health benefits through the city.

But under the Family and Medical Leave Act, spouses are defined as husbands and wives. Zashin said that could be a problem for Cleveland Heights.

Cleveland Heights might fix that issue by extending unpaid time to employees who can't get it through the 1993 federal act, said Tim Downing, a partner in the Ulmer and Berne law firm that specializes in employment law.

"We're a long way from seeing a legal challenge in court," Downing said. "But smart lawyers can challenge anything."

City officials said the benefits may cost about $5,000 a couple and they think three to five of the city's 450 municipal employees may sign up.

Census figures show Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and Cleveland Heights, had 1,368 male same-sex couples in 2000 and 1,326 female.

Cleveland Heights, a pedestrian-friendly suburb with a population of about 51,000, takes pride in its racial and cultural diversity, said Mayor Ed Kelley.

Jimmie Hicks, the only council member opposed to the measure, and a group called Families First are collecting signatures to put the issue to a vote. They need 3,962 signatures of registered voters in 30 days.

Nationwide, 128 local governments offer same-sex benefits to employees.

Legal questions and uneasiness have made it difficult for Akron City Council to talk about the issue, said Marco Sommerville, council president.

"There are a number of people on council not comfortable talking about gay relationships," he said. "It's complicated."

In Lakewood, where the council voted against a similar ordinance three years ago, city officials are not discussing the issue, said council member Nancy Roth.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)